January, I spoke at a series of continuing legal education programs throughout the state.
Co-presenter Jean Rupp (www.paws4thoughts.com)
explained how plain English writing can make legal documents easier to read and, thus,
Jean was persuasive. She cited the SEC's Jan. 22, 1998, rule requiring
plain English for the cover page, summary and risk factor sections of prospectuses (www.sec.gov/news/press/98-10.txt).
Jean floored me, though, when she suggested using grammar checking software.
The last time I had used it (several years earlier), grammar checking software was a
time-waster. It found problems that did not exist, and it missed some real problems.
Respecting Jean's advice, I decided to take another look.
I fired up Corel WordPerfect 8, opened one of my marketing pieces and selected
Grammatik from the Tools menu. (Microsoft Word 97 has similar capabilities.)
First, I had Grammatik do basic grammar checking. There were no errors, but Grammatik
did have good suggestions for dropping unnecessary words.
For example, the phrase "has the ability to" can be reduced to "is able
to" or "can." Similarly, "each and every" can be reduced to
Then I asked for basic counts. Jean recommends no more than 17 words per sentence and
six sentences per paragraph. Grammatik reported that I was in good shape by both measures.
At this point, I was pretty excited. I saw value in the software I had spurned for so
long. It was time to assess readability.
Passive voice was almost nonexistent (Jean's guideline is no more than 10 percent).
Sentence and vocabulary complexity were reasonable.
But my document required that the reader have a greater than 12th-grade reading level.
Grammatik said that somewhere between sixth and 10th grade would be best.
I was not sure what to do. On the one hand, I knew my readers would have college
degrees, so a 12th-grade reading level should not be a problem.
On the other hand, simpler probably would be better.
To resolve my dilemma, I compared my document with several others. The bad news: A
Hemingway short story and IRS Form 1040EZ instructions were much more readable than my
document. The good news: My document was a bit more readable than Lincoln's Gettysburg
I decided that the real test would be comparison to "A Plain English Handbook: How
to Create Clear SEC Disclosure Documents" (www.sec.gov/consumer/plaine.htm). I
lost. The SEC document had a reading level below 12th grade.
Despite my effort to simplify words, the readability score hardly budged. Ultimately, I
concluded that the document was fine. If readers needed one year of college to read it,
that would not be a problem.
Now I use grammar checking for all important documents. This article has 11 words per
sentence, two sentences per paragraph, 6 percent passive voice and a ninth-grade reading
Dana Shultz is an Oakland-based lawyer,
certified management consultant and speaker. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on the Web at www.ds-a.com.